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Who is Killing the Homeless?

Homelessness Problem is a National Disgrace

Three weeks; four homeless dead; and the police have no idea why. Apparently, not any more. According to Orange County DA Tony Rackauckas, the 23-year-old suspect and Iraq war veteran Itzcoatl Ocampo was a thrill seeker who took pleasure in killing his victims. "He gets a thrill out of it," Rackauckas said. "This is a serious, vicious killer who went out there intentionally going about killing people and terrorizing a whole area."

Ocampo, a 23-year-old former Marine, allegedly killed four homeless men in the Orange County, California area in a two-week period of time. The first of the four victims, James McGillivray, 53, was found on Dec. 20 outside a shopping center in Placentia. The second, Lloyd Middaugh, 42, was found eight days later on the Santa Ana River Trail in Anaheim, and the third, Paulus Cornelius Smit, 57, was found behind the Yorba Linda library on Dec. 30.

The fourth victim was John Berry, a Vietnam War veteran who had stayed in the area for years, sometimes sleeping on a bench beside a river bed or, on rainy nights, in the shopping center where he was killed.

Why target the homeless? This is a question I ask myself all the time. What kind of morally-challenged individual picks on the most vulnerable in our society for their own gratification? The fact that Ocampo apparently dealt with homelessness himself suggests to me that he may have been lashing out at his own predicament by killing others with the same afflictions.

Homelessness is at a critical stage in this country especially with respect to homeless veterans. In a previous blog I pointed out that according to the National Coalition for the Homeless there are between 130,000 and 200,000 homeless people living on the streets of the wealthiest country in the world on any given night, and between one fourth and one-fifth of all homeless are veterans.

The news gets worse for the homeless. According to The National Center on Family Homelessness one in every 45 American children are homeless. That totals roughly 1.6 million kids. Children experiencing homelessness:

  • Are sick four times more often than other children.

  • Homeless kids have four times as many respiratory infections; twice as many ear infections; five times more gastrointestinal problems; and four times more asthma.

  • They go hungry at twice the rate of other children yet have high rates of obesity due to nutritional deficiencies.

  • Homeless kids have three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems compared to non-homeless children.

Out here in LaLa land, some of us still don’t believe what happened in October 2005. Police officers from outside L.A. were observed “dumping” their unwanted mentally ill homeless on the city streets. Apparently, this inhumane “dumping” at the doors of social service organizations already short on staff and funds has been going for years. The reason given is that the cities outside L.A. don’t have the services to serve the homeless, so they travel miles outside their municipal jurisdictions and ‘dump’ them in the downtown area.

According to recent reports, the number of homeless on any given night in Los Angeles County has reached 100,000. The County of Los Angeles is now the homeless capital of the U.S., surpassing the total homeless in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco. The homeless population of L.A. County is larger than the entire population of the city of Santa Monica.

Housing to provide the homeless with a warm place to sleep and food to eat exists in most communities. They may be homeless shelters, halfway housing, day shelters, and other forms of supportive housing. The problem is all too many homeless can’t find their way to such assistance and many feel ashamed having to use it.

One successful program that has been operating since 1988 in Fairfax, Virginia, is FACETS. FACETS seeks out and identifies people who are living on the streets or in the woods with the goal of helping them stabilize and ultimately move into housing. They also connect the homeless with medical and dental resources. Not surprisingly there is two-month waitlist for families to enter a Fairfax County homeless shelter so groups such as FACETS are critical to help treat the problem.

About three months ago I started to become involved in the homeless issue after reading a disturbing story in the Detroit Free Press that a homeless vet named Charles Duncan, 42, was beaten with a baseball bat and dragged behind a pickup truck on in Corktown, Detroit's oldest neighborhood. Steve J. Diponio allegedly told police he was tired of homeless people sleeping near his house. He pleaded not guilty on December 3 to the attack on Duncan.

I think it’s unfortunate that so little time has been devoted to the homeless problem in the current election cycle. Perhaps it has become that “dirty little secret” that Republicans won’t address. Let’s hope President Obama raises the issue because it is affecting more and more of our citizens every day. How many of us have seen people begging for money, sleeping in the streets, or wheeling a shopping cart with their worldly possessions?  

As a society, what are our ethical obligations to take care of the homeless and, especially, homeless veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country? Let me put it this way: A wise man once said every society is judged by how it treats it's least fortunate amongst them.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 24, 2012